Saturday, December 4, 2010
A scene from the St. Johns River, near DeLand.
Fresh-Squeezed Florida is one of my favorite non-birding blogs. Its owner—who blogs under the name Gainesville365—is, like me, a transplanted Californian in Gainesville trying to make sense of this place. So far, she's done a much better job of it than I have--in her two years here, she has explored and blogged about every interesting nook and cranny in north Florida.
So I was delighted to receive an e-mail from her inviting me to join her on a boat tour of the St. Johns River near DeLand. She had gone on the tour there a few weeks before, she wrote, and found it truly special. But Blue Heron River Tours, the young company sponsoring the tours, needed help getting its name and mission known to the public -- would I be interested in joining her, The Florida Blogger, and possibly a third local blogger on one of their tours?
Of course I said yes. We arranged to carpool out to DeLand together and stop at one of her favorite places nearby for a late lunch on the way back. I was thrilled at the opportunity to meet her and talk to her in person, and to see a part of Florida I hadn't yet visited.
But I got a sad e-mail from her shortly before the trip: she had fallen ill, and would not be able to join us. But two other local bloggers I followed would be there and the trip was still on.
Blue Heron River Tours is based at Hontoon Landing Resort and Marina, just down the road from Hontoon Island State Park. The river front resort was pretty and quiet, as was the stretch of the St. Johns River that we explored on our tour.
Our tour boat moved slowly, by design -- both so we could have time to look for birds and animals on the shore, and to protect any wintering manatees in the area from possible collisions. We didn't see any manatees, but birds were plentiful and cooperative. My favorite bird sighting was a pair of Purple Gallinules, which don't occur in Gainesville during the winter--but seemed perfectly happy wintering only two hours away. Here's one of them, just coming into its adult plumage:
Anhingas were everywhere, posing dramatically.
Our guide and captain, Gary Randlett, clearly loved the river and was deeply knowledgeable about its natural history and role in human history. He took us off the main river and down a narrow canal, which he explained had been excavated by loggers in the 19th century. Now it looked utterly natural, as if it had been there forever. Something about that canal struck me as deeply romantic, despite the fact that it existed just so people could find trees to cut down. And I wasn't the only one who thought so: the trees lining the canal's banks -- so close we could touch them -- were filled with colorful painted birdhouses, all put up by locals as memorials or tributes to loved ones:
Towards the end of the tour, we saw an Osprey dining delicately on a fish...
...and a deer grazing close to shore.
Only an hour from us, no doubt dozens of tourists were on a boat trip at Disney World, listening to a canned spiel from a "cast member" and oohing and aahing at mechanized animals and birds. Meanwhile, the real Florida, in all its glory, waited nearly undiscovered for its fans.